The Sand Cat: A Small and Beautiful Animal of the Desert
What Is a Sand Cat?
The sand cat is a small and beautiful wild cat that is well adapted to life in the hot deserts of Africa, Arabia, and Asia. It's about the size of a house cat and has a light, sand-colored coat with darker stripes. Unlike a domestic cat, the sand cat has a wide head with large triangular ears that are positioned far apart. It's also known as the sand dune cat and has the scientific name Felis margarita.
Sand cats are generally nocturnal and secretive animals, although they are sometimes seen during the day. They usually spend their days sleeping in burrows or under scrub vegetation. At dusk they emerge to hunt for prey, which they can hear moving over or under the sand. They obtain all the water that they need from their prey.
As of 2016, the global population of sand cats is classified as "Least Concern" by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). This status is not completely certain, however. It's difficult for researchers to get an accurate count of sand cats in an area because of their reclusive habits. Their distribution appears to be patchy.
Though there is a tendency to refer to any member of the cat family (the Felidae) as a "cat", the family contains many different species with different scientific names. The sand cat is classified as Felis margarita, for example, while the domestic cat is classified as Felix catus.
A sand cat has soft, thick fur which is pale yellow-brown or grey in color. The distinctiveness of the darker stripes on the animal's body varies. There is a red-brown stripe extending from the outer corner of each eye down the cheek. The tail is tipped with black and has a few black rings near the tip. There are also two dark bars on the forelegs and dark stripes on the hind legs. The cat's undersurface is white or pale yellow.
Based on our current knowledge, sand cats weigh a maximum of seven and a half pounds. They are the second smallest member of the genus Felis. Only the black-footed cat (Felis nigripes) is smaller. The sand cat sometimes looks bigger than usual due to the very thick fur that it develops in areas with cold nights. Although most people probably think of the animal in association with searing heat, it also encounters freezing cold.
Sand Cat Kittens at the Cincinnati Zoo
Adaptations for Desert Life
Sand cats inhabit an environment with extreme temperatures, They live in sandy or rocky deserts which have sparse clumps of vegetation. The deserts are very hot on a summer day but may have a temperature below freezing at other times. The temperature may reach as high as 126 °F (52 °C) during the day and as low as 23 °F (- 5 °C ) at night, depending on the location and time of year. Given our inadequate knowledge of sand cat locations in the wild, the temperature range in some of their habitats may be even wider than this.
The bodies of sand cats have several adaptations to help them stay cool during the scorching day and prevent heat loss in the freezing cold. Their light fur colour enables them to blend in with their environment and helps prevent their bodies from absorbing too much heat during the day. The thick coat also keeps them warm during the cold desert nights. In addition, sand cats have black hair between their toes and over the pads of their feet. This hair insulates the paws from the hot ground.
The large ears of sand cats give them sensitive hearing and are believed to help them detect the sounds of prey moving in the sand. The ears are very mobile and can be moved into a horizontal position or pointed downwards. The entrance to the ears contains long white hairs, which may protect them from sandstorms.
Despite the lack of water in the desert, sand cats are able to survive. They don't drink very often—if at all—and get the water that they need from their food. If water is available they will drink it, however.
Sand cats are solitary hunters. They catch underground prey as well as animals moving over the surface of the sand. Their main food is small rodents, such as gerbils and jerboas. They also eat reptiles and birds, however. The cats bury their prey for future use if they are unable to eat it in one sitting.
When they are moving through an open area, sand cats often slink close to the ground with bent legs. They listen carefully for underground movements and sounds, then dig rapidly through the sand to catch an animal. Sand cats are excellent diggers but are not so good at climbing or jumping (although a captive sand cat named Canyon seems to have mastered climbing, as shown in the video below).
Sand cats maintain a territory. A cat sprays urine over vegetation and the ground to indicate its presence to other cats and also releases secretions from scent glands. It doesn't seem to defend its territory, however, and appears to be a peaceful animal. It buries its feces in the sand.
Canyon the Sand Cat
Sand cats either dig their own burrow, use an abandoned burrow created by an animal such as a desert fox, or enlarge a burrow created by a smaller animal, such as a rodent. They are most active at night when the temperature is lower, but they sometimes appear in the daylight and can occasionally be seen sunbathing near their burrow.
An Israeli researcher using radio telemetry found that the cats in one area travelled an average of 5.4 kilometers a night as they searched for food. The researcher also discovered that a burrow wasn't occupied by the same cat every night.
Sand cats produce a barking sound as a long distance contact call, especially during the mating season. They also meow, hiss, growl, scream, and purr.
Reproduction and Kittens
The only time that sand cats come together is during mating. The female gives birth to two to four kittens, with three being the typical number. The gestation period is fifty nine to sixty six days. There may be one or two litters a year. The first litter is born in April or May; a second litter may be born in October.
The kittens are helpless at first but develop quickly. The leave the burrow when they are about five weeks old. It's thought that in the wild they leave their mother at between four and six months of age. In captivity, sand cats have lived for up to thirteen years, or a little longer according to some sources.
Captive Sand Cats in Israel
Threats to the Sand Cat Population
Although the sand cat is a predator and catches prey, there are predators that prey on sand cats. These include birds of prey, venomous snakes, foxes, jackals, wolves, and domestic or feral dogs. In some areas dogs and domestic cats compete with sand cats for food. These animals may also transmit disease or attack the cats.
Even though sand cats live in a harsh environment, their land is valued by some humans. This is causing habitat loss and degradation in some areas. Land in the habitat is being used as a grazing area for domestic camels and goats and as a place to build human settlements and roads. In addition, off-road vehicles that are used for recreation are damaging land. Sand cats are sometimes caught in traps set for other animals.
It’s now illegal to hunt sand cats or to trap them for the exotic pet trade in some countries. Some of their habitats are protected as well. Unfortunately, the cats and their habitat are not protected everywhere in their range. Sand cats are sometimes shot or captured while sunning themselves. They are reportedly nonaggressive and are sometimes killed for sport. Another problem is that human fighting is taking place in some of the areas where the cats live.
If sand cats are aware of approaching danger during the day, they sometimes crouch down and close their eyes so that light can’t be reflected from the eyes. Coupled with their protective colouration, this makes them hard to see.
There are four subspecies of sand cats (or six, in the opinion of some researchers). The population as a whole is thought to be of Least Concern, according to the IUCN, but in some areas a subspecies is in trouble. For example, the cats are almost extinct in Israel and the subspecies in Pakistan is also endangered.
Our lack of knowledge about the population status of sand cats makes it hard to know how urgent conservation is throughout their range. They are difficult animals to study. Their cryptic colouring makes them hard to see, as does their habit of closing their eyes when a person approaches and the fact that they are often nocturnal. The hair on the pads of their feet hides their footprints. The fact that they bury their feces also hides their presence and makes dietary analysis difficult. Access to sand cat habitats is sometimes difficult for researchers, especially in areas of human conflict.
Sand Cat Conservation at the Bronx Zoo
Organizations in different countries are breeding sand cats. Techniques such as in vitro fertilization and the transfer of frozen reproductive cells and embryos between zoo facilities are being used to try to keep the captive population genetically healthy.
Zoos are controversial institutions, but successful captive breeding programs can help to preserve endangered species. It would be a great shame to discover that sand cats are in trouble over a large part of their range and that it's too late to help them. Taking action to protect the species now seems like a wise precaution.
© 2012 Linda Crampton